The conventional wisdom about transit often divides riders into two neat categories: “choice” riders — higher-income people with cars — and “captive” riders — lower-income people who must use transit because they don’t own cars.
But this framework can undermine good transit, according to a new report from TransitCenter [PDF]. In the attempt to cater only to “choice” riders or “captive” riders, public officials often make decisions that don’t accomplish what everyone wants from transit — fast, frequent, reliable service that takes them where they want to go.
TransitCenter surveyed more than 3,000 transit riders across 17 regions — and conducted focus groups in three major cities — to get a better picture of why people take transit. The responses were combined with data from All Transit, a tool that assesses the quality of transit service in different locations, to inform the report’s conclusions.
While having access to a car does influence how much people use transit, other factors are more important. In walkable neighborhoods with frequent transit service, people with and without cars both ride transit more than people in areas with poor transit.
Far from being “captive,” transit riders without cars are in fact very sensitive to the quality of service. So-called “captive” riders have other choices available, like biking, taxis, and borrowing cars, and most do take advantage of them — almost two-thirds of car-free transit riders had done so in the last month.
A big problem with the “choice/captive” rider dichotomy, says lead report author Steven Higashide, is that it prompts planners to invest in “sexy” features aimed at luring “choice” riders out of cars — like Wi-Fi or comfortable seats. The notion of the “choice rider” has been used to justify mixed-traffic streetcar projects that operate slowly and don’t actually serve many people.
Regardless of whether transit riders own a car, what actually matters to them aren’t the bells and whistles, or even the type of vehicle, but the basics: service they can depend on to get places on time.
“Transit has to compete for every rider,” Higashide told Streetsblog. “There’s often this assumption that people without cars have no choice, have to ride transit. People are sensitive to transit quality regardless of car ownership.”
TransitCenter suggests another way to frame how and why people use transit — by looking at the types of trips they use it for: